If you’re going to make your way in the world of the wealthy these days, you’ve got to show you care about the poor. Elite American schools are blooming with philanthropic groups and activities: spend a semester in sub-Saharan Africa; learn how to measure the effectiveness of nonprofits; maximize your impact.
The experience, of course, is “life-changing”: put it on your college application, talk about it over cocktails. It’s the way you become a person of privilege, but also of substance.
This phenomenon has a past worth understanding. The poor have long provided cultural currency to the rich; in previous moments of intense inequality, the social attitudes and political ideology of elites have understood the ghetto as a credibility gold mine. As the echo of the Gilded Age in our own time has grown clearer, the meanings — and failures — of elite progressivism have become more urgent to understand.
Such an understanding is the purpose of a new book by David Huyssen. Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890–1920 promises to serve a radicalizing function within the burgeoning historical subfield of the “history of capitalism,” many of whose practitioners have explicitly sought to magnify the voice of the elite in the past — with varying levels of concern for how this silences the historical voice of the working class.
The book’s power comes in the general nausea that it produces. The author puts the reader in the subject-position of the charitable bourgeois in the moment of benevolence; and he forces you to stay there. Progressive Inequality opens with a disturbing scene in Manhattan on Christmas Day, 1899:
Poor New Yorkers shuffled into Madison Square Garden by the thousands for an evening feast. . . Delights waited inside, where the Salvation Army had promised roast suckling pig, tart cranberry relish, piping hot coffee, and warm companionship to all, as well as an entertainment program.
Yet the wretched masses were, themselves, the spectacle: in the Garden’s mezzanine sat thousands of New York’s wealthy, who had paid to gawk at the feasting poor. Huyssen forces the reader to gawk along with the rich.
The book may make the reader feel queasy, but that unease isn’t a bug — it’s a feature.
In the recent wave of public interest in social inequality and among the constant references to the Gilded Age, we often hear about the year 1913.
“The richest 10 percent of Americans take a larger slice of the economic pie than they did in 1913, at the peak of the Gilded Age,” wrote journalist Eduardo Porter in his New York Times summary of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The historical reference point makes sense: in addition to the neat century’s distance from the present, and the quantitative fact of inequality’s peak in 1913, it’s the last year — like 1775 or 1859 — before the curtain comes down.
1913 was the final days of the old regime, the closing moment of what Eric Hobsbawm called “the long nineteenth century.” It’s the year during which Downton Abbey’s first season takes place, with its antediluvian aristocrats befuddled by the weekend. Apres nous, la deluge: the United States enacted the income tax in 1913, World War I broke out the next year, and the twentieth century we know, with its intensifying egalitarian pressures, unfolded.
Yet there’s something odd about this notion of 1913 as the last year of the old robber baron regime: in fact, few American historians would even call 1913 the Gilded Age — a term that usually describes the final quarter of the nineteenth century, in which industrial capital accumulation proceeded rapaciously and unchecked. 1913 is traditionally seen as the peak of the heroic reformism of the Progressive movement, which aimed to overcome those ailments of the Gilded Age let loose by industrial capitalism.
The Progressive impulse sent photographers to document the poor in the tenements and the children in the factories, muckrakers to hound the robber barons, social workers to the ghettoes, and reformers to City Hall. A modernizing, rationalizing, regulatory, and technocratic movement, it supposedly curbed the widening social chaos of nineteenth-century laissez-faire.
By the 1912 presidential election, Progressivism was so dominant that there were not two but three major candidates — William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson — claiming its mantle (along with Eugene Debs to their left). By the time Wilson was inaugurated in 1913, the ideology he represented stood uncontested by few but the hardest-line reactionaries.
Yet it is no coincidence that 1913 saw the peak of both social inequality and the power of the reformist movement aiming to abate its effects. The worse things got, the more support the Progressives accumulated, even though they had spent their prewar years in power failing to remedy the crisis. One might begin to wonder if Progressivism was more symptom of the social crisis than solution to it.
Indeed, it’s hard not to suspect that the movement’s ineffectuality might be evident in how hazily — and naively — even historically informed Americans remember it today. Nobody forgets who the abolitionists were. In this view, only the cataclysmic thirty-years’ crisis of global capitalism and the state system — 1914–1945 — set loose popular forces strong enough to contain and reverse social inequality.
The general explanation of Progressivism’s failures, from which Huyssen departs, has been something like today’s oft-recited liberal defense of Obama: What do you want from him, given the unreasonable opposition he has to deal with? A previous landmark book on the era, Daniel Rodgers’ Atlantic Crossings, excused Progressives’ defeats by arguing that reformist excitement grew far faster than the opposition softened.
Progressivism, as presented here, was an agitated tangle of reform ideas, more creative than it was politically accomplished, but by no fault of its own. Only with the New Deal did the backlog of Progressive proposals finally unspool into law.
Much of the (predominantly liberal) historiography is written as if politics is worth a dabble, but one mustn’t get too committed. Good history gets produced this way, but politically usable history doesn’t. This historical detachment mirrors the orientation of the Progressives themselves, who tried to save the working class from the ills of the era, but backed off when they caught a glimpse of the consequences of social change and were petrified. The political intervention of the organized American working class in the depths of the interwar crisis saved the day for democracy, where the middle-class liberals had quailed.
The resiliency and determination to accomplish the organizational triumphs of the 1930s came, unmistakably, from the defeats of the 1910s and 1920s, and from the deeper understanding that working-class activists had won bitterly, which middle-class activists never had to: history offers no guarantee of forward progress, and no indulgences for those who want a break.
For the leaders of the working-class movement in the 1910s, cool distance had never been an option: Emma Goldman and Big Bill Haywood could testify to this from exile, Eugene Debs from jail, and Joe Hill from the grave where he was sent by a Utah firing squad.
This gap, between the pleasure in the Progressive experiment that characterizes historical writing about the period, and the urgent necessity that pervaded actual struggles in the time, offers its own indication of how the experience of social class has worked to sculpt historical memory.
Huyssen, unlike many American historians who are more sympathetic to the Progressives, has had direct experience of working-class struggles. And he is unwilling to let the reformers off the hook; instead, he finds that they were uninterested in, or even repelled by, the working class on whose behalf they claimed to work. This ambivalence ran through the heart of the reformist project, enabled its successes, and determined its limits. It is still with us today.
Huyssen shows that a benevolent revulsion lay at the core of the reform movement. Overwhelmingly from privileged backgrounds — largely old-line WASPS with occasional assimilated Jews — the busybody Progressives made up a movement to regulate the noisome, boisterous, dangerous class accumulating in America’s immigrant ghettoes.
The reformers were from the branch of the elite most concerned about risks to public health and general social welfare, sympathetic to the plight of the miserable, and anxious over the prospects of political upheaval. Based on these worries, the Progressives broke with the laissez-faire orthodoxies of their class, the classical Victorian bourgeoisie.
In a place like New York, daily direct encounters between rich and poor shaped the relationship between the classes. Patrician and plebeian could, quite literally, smell each other. Huyssen identifies three modes of interaction that developed: prescription, the attempt to “choreograph the behavior of the poor and working class with a minimum of violence”; cooperation, with the bourgeois “occasionally listening to or allying themselves” with the workers (as in settlement houses or on picket lines); and conflict, found where cops beat strikers and anarchists built bombs.
That the three modes implied each other should go without saying — though Huyssen hedges a bit on the point: when a social worker told a ghetto-dweller to clean up her filthy-looking tenement, was it prescription or cooperation? Or violence? The immigrant surely understood — if the social worker did not quite — that ignoring enough prescriptions was a good way to end up on the wrong end of a cop’s truncheon.
Huyssen gives a particularly striking glimpse of Progressive condescension in his examination of one the movement’s great efforts, tenement inspection and housing reform. One inspector he quotes wrote of how tenants “can not understand and can not be made to understand that [fire-escape obstructions] endanger their own lives and those of others.” The tenants lied about their income, inspectors complained; they were “slovenly” and “vile.”
The expectation of filth and danger lent a thrilling frisson to the work of reform. For the rich, the cross-class encounter was fun. A sense of adventure clung to bourgeois expeditions to the slums.
A New York Times writer ventured to the Bowery to report, “One of the first lessons to be learned by the explorer is that a vast difference exists between the Hebrew of the drama and the sensational romance on the one hand, and the Hebrew of stern laborious reality on the other.”
Note the mansplaining tone: this heroic journalist cut through the fog of myth to uncover the grim realities of the toilers: “The investigator will find no richly-fed men, extravagantly attired, gleaming with diamonds, fat as Jeshurun, rubbing their hands and computing their tremendous and illicit gains with an oily satisfaction.”
The Lower East Side was where you went to exercise your liberal guilt; the “investigator . . . will have the way cleared for him with the most eager consideration — a consideration so eager that he feels ashamed of the sense and appearance of comfort and repletion on his own part which generates it — by men and youths whose cheeks are pinched and hollow.” You can’t miss it: the reporter is getting off on his own escapade among the poor.
Intrepidity paid a double reward: first, for braving the danger of the exotic slum at all; second, for having the courage to see the Bowery as it was and acknowledge his own relative privilege. Yet the journalist keeps himself at the center of the account, his narcissism reproduced even in how he imagined the poor “clearing the way” for him.
Huyssen places this social dynamic, in which the rich reaped tremendous psychic rewards and cultural capital from their encounters with the poor, at the heart of Progressive reform.
In a lengthy examination of the Charity Organization Society of New York, he shows how philanthropists produced distinctions of merit among the poor, and in so doing, jockeyed for distinctions of status among their rich peers as well. The organization’s Hand-Book for Friendly Visitors among the Poor specified how to detect the unworthy: “where too much is paid for rent, or tobacco, or liquor, or dress, or in any unwise expense, and economy needs to be taught.” Applicants for relief had to learn to supplicate themselves and prove both their virtue and their desperation.
The rich, on the giving end of this bargain, got to take a self-involved pleasure in receiving such supplication. “It is a beautiful, a never-to-be-forgotten sight,” wrote Adeline Countess Schimmelmann of the Salvation Army’s Christmas dinner. “It spoke to my heart when the people, by clapping and cheering, applauded the pictures of Christ in the Passion play, although at first, I must confess, it jarred a little upon the finer sensibilities.”
One “elegantly dressed gentleman” exclaimed, “I cannot get my wife away from here! She is in smiles and tears alternately. We took a trip among the tables and came back without any money! This is perfectly delightful!” You can almost hear the clinking of silver and china in the Park Avenue salons where reformers met their friends to talk about what they had seen on their urban safaris.
As Huyssen makes clear, this elite initiative ought not be dismissed outright. In certain moments, it produced a genuine cross-class alliance, making possible many of the reforms that have given this era its reputation. Trade unions were recognized, child labor restricted, working-class housing improved, and many other gains won, thanks to the political coalition that formed around this snobbish sympathy.
Famously, Progressive society ladies walked with workers on picket lines during the great garment industry strike of 1909, the “Uprising of the 20,000.” Aristocrats in furs, by their very presence, could shield Jewish and Italian women from the beatings that police would otherwise deliver.
The victory of industrial unionism in New York’s garment industry occurred thanks in significant part to the so-called “Mink Brigade” and the elite sympathy it represented. And the unions that emerged and solidified in the conflicts of the 1910s, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, in turn would play a crucial role in the development of the CIO in the 1930s.
In certain moments, one can see the glint of a genuine cross-class social democratic movement taking shape here — something similar to the coalescence of trade unionists from the coal pits and Fabian socialists from London salons that generated Britain’s Labour Party at the turn of the century. Teddy Roosevelt — as blue-blooded as they came — gladhanded among the garment workers and in 1913 lamented
our opponents [who] are fond of saying that the governmental regulation which we advocate interferes with ‘liberty.’ This is the argument of which certain judges and certain lawyers are most fond. It is the ‘liberty’ which every reactionary court wishes to guarantee to the employer who makes money from the lifeblood of those he employs; the ‘liberty’ of the starving girl to starve slowly in a sweatshop.
But at no point did workers, immigrants, or the poor attain any kind of leading role in this coalition. The argument summarized by Roosevelt was an argument between elites about how to treat the poor. An imperial relationship between the Upper East Side and the Lower thus held throughout the period: sometimes the uplifting mission of the White Man’s Burden, sometimes the machine guns and police violence of the Raj.
Any relationship so unequal is bound to be volatile — even a philanthropic or “cooperative” one. Philanthropy thrills to begging and tolerates activism, but hates a demand.
What would happen when the poor stopped begging and started demanding? Huyssen here is at his most scathing. He shows how the Progressives, themselves a breakaway fraction of the elite, began to lose their nerve over the question of working-class agency.
At events in the pillars of bourgeois women’s civil society — a meeting of the Women’s Education Society, a tea at the Colony Club — working-class women, socialists, and suffragists all, came to perform tales of woe for their philanthropist allies. Anne Tracy Morgan, daughter of financial titan J. P. Morgan, reported,
The idea of inviting the shirtwaist makers to speak is a very simple one. We feel that what this strike stands for is not altogether understood and that the more people who hear the story the better it will be for their cause. There is nothing socialistic or suffragistic in the project.
Profound mutual incomprehension thus characterized the alliance, and it deepened as the labor conflict intensified. Over the course of the strike, organizer Clara Lemlich had her ribs broken by hired thugs, while the ersatz allies to whom she had gone to speak and plead for support did not deign to endorse the workers’ demand for a closed shop.
At a Carnegie Hall rally organized by Morgan and her friends, lawyers took the stage to instruct strikers on the majesty of the American constitution, and advise them how to seek legal redress for their arrests, beatings, and workhouse sentences. “The institutions of the country [are] ample to guarantee . . . all the rights and liberties to which they [are] entitled.” This at a moment when young working-class women were being beaten by police and sent to workhouses every day.
The Women’s Trade Union League — the organization most directly representing the cross-class alliance — ultimately collapsed over this contradiction. Its elite members began to denounce it as a socialist front or “emotionalist” madness; the working-class organizers, meanwhile, pressed on, increasingly angry with their former backers.
“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship,” roared organizer Rose Schneidermann at a memorial sponsored by Morgan for the Triangle Shirtwaist fire victims.
We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. . . .I can’t talk good fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.
It was an obituary for cross-class collaboration — the premise of Progressivism itself.
In the coming years, the relationship between the workers’ movement and their erstwhile allies would worsen steadily. Huyssen argues — in contrast to the prevailing interpretation of World War I as a moment of legitimization for organized labor — that the Wilson presidency saw the scarcely contained bile of liberal elites for the working class finally released.
At the culmination of the Red Scare and the destruction of the radical movement and the trade unions in the late 1910s and early 1920s, the Progressives ultimately proved willing to crush the very people whose social problems had given their movement its purpose (or to stand by as they were crushed). Disillusionment might have been unpleasant for these bourgeois idealists; given the choice, though, they preferred it to social transformation and elite dispossession — ideas about which they had discovered their former working class political allies, who had once seemed so harmless and desperate for their aid, were quite serious.
Of course, the working-class movement, and the broader struggle for social democracy, did recover from their 1920s nadir. They did so thanks to the political initiative taken by workers organized on industrial basis at their workplaces, in their neighborhoods, and at the ballot box.
In translating their direct action into institutions, the labor activists of the 1930s had the help of the intellectual remnants of the Progressive movement, as well as the organizational remnants of the labor movement. There was a direct lineal descent — in many cases, the same individuals — from 1910s Progressivism to the left wing of Franklin Roosevelt’s policymaking apparatus.
Strikingly, as historian Landon Storrs has recently demonstrated, the middle-class policy wonks within Roosevelt’s brain trust most sympathetic to the labor movement and social democracy tended to be women and feminists — the legacy of the Women’s Trade Union League, the National Consumer’s League, and other Progressive organizations founded and led by bourgeois women. Now reempowered by the CIO’s organizing, they crafted the major pieces of legislation that comprised the 1930s creation of the welfare state. One of McCarthyism’s most vicious consequences was the destruction of this social democratic feminist tradition within the labor movement, the Democratic Party, and the federal bureaucracy.
Huyssen acknowledges the centrality of feminist politics to the formation of the cross-class alliance. Yet his analysis of the intersection between gender and class is insufficient. Some Progressive women turned against the working-class movement while some stuck it out and helped build the New Deal; in Progressive Inequality, these different paths appear more as quirks of biography than as expressions of real social forces.
Previous historians, such as Alice Kessler-Harris and Kathryn Kish Sklar, have grasped this intersection with greater sophistication; such intersectional analysis, in combination with Huyssen’s scathing view of the Progressives, would sharpen the book’s political edge.
Even more glaring is the absence of sustained analysis of racial processes at work in the encounter between rich and poor. Consider the housing inspector who found the Italians to be “vile” and “slovenly.” (Indeed, Progressivism’s Southern variant often appeared at the forefront of Jim Crow policies: driving black people from public life was a strategy for cleaning up politics, improving public hygiene, and upgrading the nation’s racial stock.) One cannot miss here, or virtually anywhere in the reformist mission, the profound affinities between white supremacy, Progressive reform at home, and American imperialism abroad.
No study of elite liberalism is complete without understanding the connection between bourgeois politics and white supremacy — a connection whose workings Huyssen narrates without really attempting to probe. These gaps weaken the otherwise clear resonances with the present that are the book’s motivation and purpose. Huyssen’s considerable skill as a writer of narrative history undermines his work’s formulation of the kind of historical analysis that can shape political strategy.
Reading Progressive Inequality, you can feel the texture of the cross-class encounter that Huyssen describes; you can feel it for the same reason, one presumes, that he’s decided to write about it: because it’s so familiar. The “let-the-maid-clean-it” feminism of Lean In, the racial pseudo-egalitarianism of Teach for America — these are the avatars of Progressivism today, and the true targets of Huyssen’s ire.
So long as the poor are with us, so too, it seems, will be those familiar figures from the bourgeoisie: elites who are genuinely upset by poverty, but more than that, are disgusted and frightened by the poor — or, perhaps, are upset about poverty because they are disgusted and frightened by the poor.
You hear this in the everyday, in the words of caution by young gentrifiers about the as-yet unconquered neighborhoods; in the perennial election-year complaint about the white working-class voters who “vote against their own interests”; in patronizing, pseudo-sympathetic concern about the habits of the poor, often scarcely concealing loathing for working-class bodies and tastes; in the boom in “social enterprise” and “outcome-oriented” nonprofits, whose essential premise is that the MBA knows far better than some peasant what a rural African community needs.
This amalgam of sympathy and loathing forbids any kind of mutual trust or solidarity, and so renders sustained collective action unthinkable. Instead, this relationship reduces inequality to a melodrama in which the charitable liberal is the hero, and the poor are props.
Huyssen argues that it is only through a sustained, intimate, uncomfortable, and perhaps unavoidably violent encounter between rich and poor on the urban stage that the do-gooders can come to recognize themselves not as the default and the poor as aberrant, but as self-interested actors engaged in a drama of self-preservation and self-promotion — just like everyone else in class society.
When the concerned rich imagine that they can buy inequality offsets, they occlude the real lines of conflict in society. Productive social conflict requires a level of honesty inaccessible to those who, just back from their life-changing trips — to the ghetto, to Africa, to business school — see themselves as disembodied, abstract superegos. To shift this dynamic will require confrontation.
If the experience of the working class in the first half of the twentieth century provides any lesson, workers and organizers will wait in vain for elites to initiate this process. We will have to do it ourselves, in numbers; we will have to sustain the confrontation for decades; and we will have to withstand the vitriol — and most likely, the repression — of those we thought were our friends, before enough of them come around or crumble for us to win.
This is as much a historical question as a political one. It begins with the understanding that is the core of Huyssen’s argument, the truth which an anguished Rose Schneidermann spat in the face of her patronizing benefactors: it is up to the working people to save themselves, as it always has been.
(Full disclosure: Huyssen and I are good friends, though more from shared trade union activity than academic collaboration. For what it’s worth, I hadn’t read any of his academic work until I read the book for this review.)